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How women's history is good for business

Posted by Susannah Blair  March 6, 2012 10:00 AM

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Photo courtesy of Bonnie Smith

For businesses wanting to increase sales, Bonnie Hurd Smith of Ipswich, historian and author of the book, We Believe in You, thinks National Women’s History Month might be the answer. Featuring women’s history in your business, she says, can attract women clients, members, and donors, and Smith sees history as the key to success personally and professionally.

As a result in 2010, Smith founded History Smiths, a public relations and marketing agency that incorporates history in service to organizations, businesses, communities, and individuals on the North Shore.

She says every business or organization—for profit or not-for-profit—wants to attract customers and their loyalty as well as media attention while also developing a positive reputation. Many also want to make a difference in their communities.

“Getting involved with history can do all of that for you,” Smith said. “Studying women’s history makes us feel less alone. We can see the experience of women who succeeded and how they achieved their goals.”

To highlight such successes and to honor National Women’s History Month, Smith will explore the experiences, insights and relevance of women poets, essayists, abolitionists, and suffragists on Wednesday, March 21 at 7:30 pm as part of Salem’s Old Town Hall Lecture Series at 32 Derby Square in Salem. The series is sponsored by the Gordon College Institute for Public History.

Smith will discuss the lives of Anne Bradstreet, Judith Sargent Murray, Maria Stuart, and Lucy Stone, all women with links to the Boston area. But Smith sees these women as more than local role models; they were excellent writers, speakers, networkers and organizers with useful tactics applicable for today.

“From an early age all of these women had a sense of life purpose, what they were good at and who they were,” she said. “They had courage in taking action despite obstacles.”

In order to increase visibility and/or revenue, Smith suggests companies could celebrate such courage by sponsoring a women’s history talk at a local library or school. Non-profits could hold a women’s fundraising seminar, or retail stores could create a special sale event. At a women’s clothing store in the Boston area, for instance, Smith gave a talk on women’s history. The company provided refreshments, and offered items on sale. She says new customers came in for the first time, existing customers showed up, and the store increased sales and status.

The Brookhouse Home for Women in Salem, a non-profit assisted living facility, also held an historical fundraising event to correspond with its bicentennial anniversary this past October. Board member Rebecca Putnam of Salem says the Victorian tea-party themed event highlighted the stories of the founding women of Brookhouse.

“History is important for institutions that do fundraising because it brings people together,” said Putnam. “When donors know the history of an organization they feel engaged and part of the family.”

According to Gayle Fischer of Salem, associate professor of U.S. and women’s history at Salem State University, women like Bradstreet and Murray were important intellectuals and should be an integral part of ongoing historical narratives.

“Women need heroes,” said Fischer. “It’s not about trading men’s history for women’s history, but most of my students haven’t heard of women who are just as common as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.”

Which is exactly the point, Smith says, especially considering that in Massachusetts and across the country teaching is moving toward a more corporate model of education where history, arts and culture are sometimes left out.

“How history is taught out of the classroom makes all the difference,” said Smith.  “A lot of young girls and young women face self-esteem issues and are told you can’t do this or that. Women’s history can play a life-altering role is in the area of women and girls’ self-esteem. If the stories are presented in ways that are engaging and relevant, we can find great role models and inspiration.”
Laurie Crumpacker of Gloucester, professor of history and women’s studies at Simmons College hosted a graduate seminar presentation by Smith.

“For a long time when I was young there was no women’s history, and it was like leaving out half the world,” said Crumpacker. “By finding out about women in the past, we can prepare for the future and that’s really what history is all about.”

It’s also what can make businesses more successful, Smith says.

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